Michal Sayas remembers all too well those days when she couldn’t afford a peach at the supermarket. Today, she could buy the entire store — and all the peaches her heart desires.
It is from this personal experience of being in need that the Israeli immigrant created the organization Be’Simcha (Hebrew for “happiness”) in order to give hope to local Israeli-American and Jewish families. The nonprofit assists people with everything from school supplies to utility payments.
It all started with a chance encounter while standing in line at Burlington Coat Factory, where she overheard the woman at the front of the line arguing with the cashier.
“She was pregnant and had three small children with her,” Sayas said. “And she was arguing in Spanish about an item she purchased in installments. … The woman at the register told her that she didn’t finish the payment plan and the customer insisted she did. For me, it was a sign that I’m at the right place and at the right time. When it was my turn to pay, I asked the cashier how much the woman still owes and paid the entire sum. The woman couldn’t believe what was happening. She couldn’t stop thanking me — things like that don’t usually happen to her.”
From that day on, Sayas, 52, said she took it upon herself to pay off the remaining balances of the store’s layaway customers who didn’t have enough money to pay for their items. She had only one condition: not to reveal her identity to the customers. She also didn’t reveal her secret charity work to her husband, Yossi, and three children, Adam, Orian and Roy.
Sayas, who came to the United States in 1986, was not always a woman of means living in a Calabasas mansion. And her husband was not always successful in the construction business (where Sayas used to help in the office).
“I remember us, a young couple with no money. We came here with nothing,” she said. “When I was pregnant with my first child, Orian [25 years ago], we went to the supermarket and saw a big and beautiful peach. I told my husband, ‘Oh, how much I would have loved to eat it.’ But of course, I knew we couldn’t afford it. … Later on that day, my husband went back to the supermarket and bought that peach. I told him, ‘Are you crazy? We can’t afford it, go back and return it.’ He went to the kitchen and quickly cut it to pieces before I’d be able to do anything about it. Of course, I didn’t have a choice but to eat it.”
Today, even though the couple’s financial situation is much improved, Sayas said she has never forgotten those harsh days of calculating every dollar spent and serving sandwiches on Friday night instead of a warm and festive Shabbat meal.
In November 2013, two months after the death of her mother, Simcha Koobi, Sayas decided to take her charity work to a new level. Her youngest child was already 16 and the two older ones in their 20s, and Sayas found herself with a lot of time on her hands. Her solution was to establish her own charity.
“I invited 14 friends over and asked my husband and children to join us and told them how I’ve paid all the debts of buyers in Burlington during the past seven years. My husband and children were shocked. They had no idea,” Sayas said. “My girlfriends were very supportive and agreed to join my charity organization, which I called after my mom’s name: Be’Simcha. The only condition my friends had was that we are going to support only Israeli or Jewish-American families, which I had no problem with.”
Sayas approached three Jewish schools, which provided her with a list of families needing help. Then she filled 135 boxes with school supplies for them.
Since it officially opened as a nonprofit in August 2014, Be’Simcha (be-simcha.org) has provided much more than school supplies. Sayas has assisted single moms who couldn’t make ends meet, paying their utility bills, giving them gift cards for food and kid’s clothing, buying car seats for toddlers, paying car insurance and more. She gave them something else, too — hope.
“I’m there for them at all times. I listen to them, support them, visit them at their homes. Their kids are regarding me as a close family member,” Sayas said. “I took a group of over 50 children and their parents to Disneyland and the kids were fighting over who is going to sit next to me on the rides. It was the first time that they had ever been to Disneyland, including the parents. It was touching to see how joyful they were.”
She found a job for the father of a young child whose wife is sick and unable to work, and arranged for a birthday party for a family with 10-year-old triplets whose only wish was to celebrate like all the other kids in their class.
Word about the Good Samaritan has even found its way to the East Coast, where Israeli mothers in need of medical help for their children and in danger of having their utilities turned off have reached out for assistance.
Sivan Kobi, Sayas’ sister-in-law, is a Be’Simcha volunteer who can testify to the impact the nonprofit is having. Last Passover, she delivered holiday gift cards to various families and found the experience very moving.
“You had to see how grateful and happy they were,” she said. “One mother told me how hard it was for her to buy diapers for her baby, and that this gift card is lifesaving. It was amazing to me to see how a little money — little for me, but not for them — can make a family happy.”
Mali, the single mother of the triplets who was assisted by Sayas (and who asked that her full name not be used), called the philanthropist “larger than life.”
“There aren’t many people like her out there,” she said. “For me to celebrate a birthday with my kids or take them to Disneyland is a luxury I can’t afford. Michal made it all possible for me. … I’ll be forever grateful to her for what she had done for us.”
Sayas said she never turns down anyone.
“It’s not only the financial help they are desperate for. They need someone to listen to them, to give them a good word, an encouragement,” she said. “Sometimes I spend an hour or so on the phone with them. If they need me to come over, I’ll leave everything behind and will go see them.”
Sayas’ charity organization has no paid employees. Its events usually take place at her friends’ homes, and almost all services are donated by people and organizations in the community. She was recently approached by the Israeli-American Council, which has decided to support the nonprofit.
“I have a plan to give the women of Be’Simcha some ego boost,” Sayas said of one future project. “They don’t have any self-confidence. Some don’t know English very well. I hope to give them a course that will help with their self-esteem, will improve their English and will help them go out there and find a job. They just need this little push and someone to believe in them.”
Someone like Sayas.